Statistically, Alabama’s offense was effective with no turnovers and 465 yards gained in a 29-13 win against Auburn. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was able to ride his star players Derrick Henry and Calvin Ridley to a victory by getting the ball into their hands as much as he could.
But, as I re-watched this Iron Bowl, I couldn’t help but notice the Tide’s offense was missing something. That something was running back Kenyan Drake, who broke his arm in the Mississippi State game. Drake is listed as a running back, but is really a do-it-all player for Alabama. He’s used as a slot receiver, change-of-pace running back and even a gunner on special teams. He was on the sideline and in uniform during this game, but had his arm heavily wrapped and never seemed like a real threat to play.
A player with Drake’s skill set and potential usage is hard to replace and takes a few players to do so. There were a couple of plays in this game that magnified Drake’s absence and hinted at how valuable he is, not only as a complement to Derrick Henry as a ball carrier, but as a receiver, too.
The player Kiffin used most to fill Drake’s role as a receiver seemed to be Richard Mullaney. The play above was a textbook Drake play where Alabama would use his speed along the line of scrimmage to find a mismatch or a blown assignment in order to pick up short yards. Mullaney does a nice job here of filling that role by making the catch and picking up the first down.
However, as the game became less scripted (meaning the offense had to think on its feet more), Coker and Mullaney weren’t always on the same page, and it cost the Tide some points.
In the play above we saw second-and-2 inside Auburn territory. Assuming it was a run play, the Tigers defense put an extra man in the box and took a risk by leaving one corner outside to play zone against two receivers. Kiffin called the perfect counter for that by attempting to get the ball out and into the hands of the receiver before a second player could come down in coverage. But something didn’t click on that play as Coker threw the ball too far behind Mullaney who had no shot at catching it — he even tipped it so it wouldn’t be intercepted.
Maybe that was just a bad throw; those happen all the time. But, as I continued to watch, I noticed plays like that were more of a lack of chemistry between quarterback and receiver than just a throwing error.
This play was one the Tide should’ve paid for in the form of a pick-six. Mullaney did slip on this play, but even then the timing was off between he and Coker. Mullaney isn’t as explosive as Drake when going in and out of cuts. When a quarterback practices these kinds of routes all year with a certain player and then is asked to adjust to another, this is the kind of error you have to expect every now and then. It wasn’t the correct read by Coker — who had a man open deeper down the field — but it still showed shaky chemistry between the two.
It wasn’t just Mullaney who was called to fill Drake’s role. Kiffin also used wide receiver ArDarius Stewart to try and make Drake-esque plays out of the backfield.
In the play above, Stewart has his man beat, but instead of stopping and turning at the first-down marker (where he had space), he continued his route and actually ran himself into coverage. When teams are playing football at this high of a level, it requires quarterbacks to throw the ball before a receiver turns his head, that way it’s there right as he makes his move. In order to do that, the chemistry between passer and receiver has to be well versed and almost to the point of muscle memory. Alabama isn’t just missing Drake for his talent, they’re missing him as a familiar piece of an offense that relies on his quick-catch skills in order to open up both the running game and deep-passing attack.
Drake has a chance to play in next week’s SEC championship game, but I wouldn’t expect Kiffin to risk him if he doesn’t have to. Chances are they’ll save him for what the Crimson Tide hope to be the College Football Playoff semifinal.